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how to know if a song is copyrighted

How To Know If A Song Is Copyrighted?

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We know you came to help you find out if a particular song you like is under copyright and to get straight to the point we want to tell you that all music is likely under some form of copyright hence you could face legal trouble if you were to use the track in an unlicensed way.

Depending on your intentions, you may be able to use a song under copyright within the following guidelines:

  1. Personal use – if you intend to include a copyrighted song in a personal project for offline use without any monetization (example: a home video or school project).
  2. Education purposes – in some cases, music can fall under “fair use” and be legally allowed to be referenced or included within creative works. However, these guidelines can be confusing. Misuse can result in punishment or removal of content (example: commentary, criticism, or parody).
  3. Public Domain – depending on the song, some music may fall under “public domain,” which means the track has either had its copyright expire (50+ years, depends on location), was released to the public domain by the artist, or never had copyright in the first place. (example: many Christmas songs like “Deck the Halls”).
  4. Proper royalty free licensing – while it isn't free, you may be able to purchase the royalty free music license to obtain the legal rights to a particular song or music track for use in your creative works, often including commercial use.

How To Properly Verify If A Song Falls Under Copyright?

While it is safe to assume whatever music you are questioning is under copyright, there are some ways that you can 100% verify if this is the case.

In the case of wanting to use a particular song on a YouTube video, the easiest way to check for copyright issues is through visiting YouTube's Music Policies page (requires a YouTube channel).

From there, you can search for a particular song or artist and see what the terms of the copyright are with YouTube. In most cases, you'll see the following message:

This song is not available for use in your YouTube videos. If you use this song, your video may be blocked or muted.

YouTube Music Policies - Maroon 5 Search
An example of YouTube's music copyright checker with the band Maroon 5 used as an example.

According to YouTube's usage restrictions documentation, music copyright holders have three different policies to choose from when dealing with unlicensed use of their songs within another YouTube channel's content:

  • Monetize: The copyright holder has chosen to monetize this music, so ads may appear on your video. In some cases, the copyright holder may elect to share some of that revenue with you. Even if this policy is applied, the video may not be available everywhere or on all devices.
  • Block worldwide: One or more copyright holders doesn't allow the use of this music on YouTube. If you use this music, your video may be muted or may be entirely unavailable on YouTube.
  • Block in some countries: One or more copyright holders have restricted the countries in which this music is available on YouTube. If you use this music, your video won't be viewable where the music is blocked on YouTube.
None of these are great options for YouTubers to deal with, so the consensus is DO NOT include copyrighted songs in your original YouTube content for any reason. That is, unless you are willing to share/forfeit any potential profits, have your video involuntarily muted or removed entirely from YouTube.

What If I Am Covering A Copyrighted Song?

Just because you don't use the original version of the song in your content (such as an instrumental for a cover of the song), it doesn't mean you'll be in the clear. Depending on the artist or copyright holder's wishes, you may be subject to decreased views or removal of monetization methods for covers.

YouTube Copyright Music Check - Elvis

Ways To Find Quality Music Outside Of Copyright Restrictions

Now that you've hopefully discovered whether the song you wanted to use for your video, podcast, or multimedia project falls under copyright restrictions, we can move onto ones that do not. There are several ways to find quality songs that can be legally used in digital media projects or YouTube videos of which we will go over below:

#1: Purchase Royalty Free Music

While spending money on licensing isn't always the ideal choice for YouTubers, filmmakers, podcasters, or other creators, it isn't as scary as it sounds. Purchasing a proper license for royalty free music is quick, easy, and surprisingly cheap. 

The top recommendation from our guide on the best royalty-free music sites is Soundstripe. We love Soundstripe for its high-quality music library, affordable yearly pricing, and straight-forward licensing, which covers both personal and commercial use. Read our full Soundstripe review.

#2: Check Out YouTube's Free Music Library

Since YouTube has experienced so many creators having trouble finding good copyright-free music for their uploaded videos, the tech giant has released a small library of free songs and sound effects that can be used within your videos. It isn't the largest or highest-quality music, but it helps if you are on a little to no budget.

You can find the YouTube audio library here, but keep in mind that some songs within it require you to attribute the original creator in your YouTube description correctly, or you'll still be subject to punishment on the service and potential legal issues.

types of creative commons licenses

#3: Find Audio Licensed Under Creative Commons

While another free option, this is easily the most confusing method to go through and only recommended for creators who understand the limitations of a Creative Commons license and how to follow the proper guidelines set forth by the original CC content creator.

There are several places to find songs or tracks which are available for use under the Creative Commons license. Be sure to check the fine print as you may need to correctly attribute, not be able to modify in any way (no derivative works), share alike (release your video also under Creative Commons), or not be able to use commercial.

Failure to abide by the original creator's Creative Commons license guidelines will have you subject to the same copyright violations you'd face without CC, so be thorough before using in any future multimedia projects. Make sure you document where you got the song from, and it's listing of Creative Commons terms (a screenshot is ideal), which can be stored and referenced in the future should any legal trouble arise.

We hope this article helped you find the process of how to tell if a song is copyrighted.